The state and New York City have agreed to pay $36 million to a man and the family of his late co-defendant for their wrongful conviction in the 1965 assassination of civil rights leader Malcolm X.
Muhammad Aziz, 84, and Khalil Islam, who died in 2009 aged 74, were convicted alongside Mujahid Abdul Halim in the fatal shooting of black Muslims’ most prominent spokesperson, Malcolm X, during from the beginning of a speech to Audubon. Ballroom in New York on February 21, 1965.
Aziz and Islam’s attorney said Sunday that the city agreed to settle a total of $26 million to cover the claims of the two plaintiffs, and the state agreed to $10 million.
The New York City Law Department said through a spokesperson on Sunday, “This settlement brings some justice to people who have spent decades in prison and have been stigmatized for being falsely accused of murder of an emblematic figure”.
The department said it stood by its 2021 finding, when Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. said, “There is one ultimate finding: Mr. Aziz and Mr. Islam were wrongfully convicted of this crime”.
A judge officially exonerated the couple. Aziz, commenting on his conviction and sentence, said the US justice system was “corrupt to the core”.
Halim admitted shooting Malcolm X, but insisted his co-defendants were not involved. Aziz and Islam, convicted alongside Halim in 1966, offered alibis that they were at home at the time of the attack, according to a case history by the National Exoneration Registry.
All three received life sentences; Aziz and Islam were released in the 1980s. Halim was granted parole in 2010, although he enjoyed two decades of limited freedom through a work release program.
Aziz and Islam had claimed their innocence from the day they were accused.
Prosecutors believed Aziz and Islam had been used as muscle for the Nation of Islam, the predominant black Muslim organization. Malcolm X, reviled by some white leaders for taking “any means necessary” in the fight for civil rights, had fallen out with the group just before he was assassinated, after a trip to Mecca.
Malcolm X began to soften to the concept of racial unity. Among those who would be unhappy with his independent leadership was the leader of the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad.
The defendants were identified as abusers by witnesses in court proceedings unlikely to take place in a contemporary courtroom. Aziz suggested that authorities could have brought in witnesses to watch him in informal circumstances without his knowledge, rather than in a formal queue.
In early 2020, as Netflix began airing the documentary series, “Who Killed Malcolm X?” Vance reopened Aziz and Islam’s cases, and in late 2021 his office decided to overturn the convictions and dismiss the charges.
Among the bureau’s findings was that the FBI had not shared evidence that could have exculpated the couple. It included eyewitness descriptions of the gunmen who did not appear to describe Islam. The agency also hid the relationship it had with a witness who testified against the duo: This person was also an FBI informant.
When the convictions were overturned in 2021, Vance apologized to Aziz, his family and the survivors of Islam.
Vanessa Potkin, director of special litigation at the nonprofit Innocence Project, which helped with the evacuation effort, said at the time that it took five decades of research and activism for “convictions unjustified are officially recognized and rectified”.
But she suggested work has just begun to get to the bottom of the government’s possible culpability and alleged complicity in the case. This “demands further investigation,” Potkin said.
Colin Sheley and Yasmine Persaud contributed.